Helpmeet by Naben Ruthnum
Undertow Publications (May 24, 2022)
94 pages; $11.99 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Naben Ruthnum is the author of A Hero of Our Time, and Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. He lives in Toronto and also writes thrillers as Nathan Ripley. His newest horror novella is Helpmeet.
“Helpmeet” is an outdated term for a spouse. Updated to “help mate,” it’s defined as “a helpful companion or partner, especially one’s husband or wife.” In this novella, Dr. Edward Wilk is dying of a disease that’s rotting him from the inside out. His wife, Louise, is there to support and help him until his dying breath, but she realizes that his ailment is not actually a disease, but merely a transformative phase leading to something far darker or insidious than readers could possibly imagine.
Novellas are strange creatures. They allow authors more room to develop characters, narrative arcs, world building, etc. but also require a tightness and precision of language so as not to become bloated and unyielding. They also require an exactness in plot so as not to read as expanded short stories, but also not to read as underdeveloped novels. Ruthnum has found this balance in Helpmeet. The plot fits the length perfectly, and the surprises for the characters, and then for the reader, come at exactly the right time. There is a lot crammed into these ninety odd pages, but there’s nothing wasted.
What makes Helpmeet particularly terrifying is the body horror and language that Ruthnum uses to invoke a body rotting apart. Language like “Edward’s nose had gone from gray and flaking to pink and weeping to green to gone” and “A flat slug with a ragged red tail, the dead leaf of a succulent. Edward’s tongue,” is brutal and raw. The images of Edward’s body just falling apart completely are terrifying and will haunt the reader. Then, the surreal ending that occurs in the last few chapters will shock readers, taking the horror to a new and different level, one that’s less gross, but more bizarre, unsettling readers in ways that will linger beyond the close of the covers.
Overall, Helpmeet is a really surprising horror novella. What starts out as medical body horror quickly shifts into something else. It’s a solid tale and one that horror readers will enjoy.